[Lingtyp] Topic and focus markers with other functions

Spronck, Stef stef.spronck at helsinki.fi
Sat Aug 3 12:51:21 UTC 2019

Dear all,

Just a side-note, but is answering these two fundamental questions (what counts as a function and what counts as marking) not exactly what we have (and need!) theories of grammar for?




Dr Stef Spronck

Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki (HU Humanities Programme; Indigenous languages)

Research affiliate at CoEDL<http://www.dynamicsoflanguage.edu.au/>, The Australian National University and FunC<https://www.arts.kuleuven.be/ling/func>, University of Leuven

Associate editor at Language under Discussion<http://ludjournal.org/index.php?journal=LUD&page=index> and section editor (Typology/Pragmatics) at Open Linguistics<https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/opli>

From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of Peter Austin <pa2 at soas.ac.uk>
Sent: 03 August 2019 11:55:08
To: Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>
Cc: <LINGTYP at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG> <LINGTYP at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] Topic and focus markers with other functions


Over 45 years ago Michael Silverstein proposed conceptualizing 'function' (specifically cases in his 1974 paper) in the mathematical sense, i.e. as a relation between sets that associates members of one set to exactly one member of the second set.  Functions can have arguments and be n-place. He proposed something like:

f(x,y,z,w) = c

where c is the set of case markers and roughly

x is predicate-argument type
y is animacy type
z is clause type
y is cross-clausal coreference type

Under certain conditions the function can be normalised, and variables reduced to a single value.

Thus, in Jiwarli (Western Australia) the case marker -rla occurs when

x = transitive object
(y is normalised)
z = dependent purpose clause
w = main clause subject coreferential with dependent clause subject

So in Eva's example f is two place (x,y) as above and clause type and conference are irrelevant.

Adopting this approach means we don't need to ask "does ergative mark grammatical function or does it mark animacy?".


On Sat, 3 Aug 2019, 06:45 Martin Haspelmath, <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de<mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>> wrote:
Eva's post raises the interesting general question whether markers that occur under two necessary conditions should be said to mark both of these simultaneously:

– Do Quechua markers like -mi or -si "mark" only evidentiality, or do they also "mark" focus (because they always occur on the focused constituent and thus serve to identify it)?

– Do ("optional") ergative markers in Jaminjung "mark" the nominal only for ergative role, or do they also "mark" focus (because they are generally restricted to focused nominals and thus serve to identify the nominals as fucused)?

– Do case flags in "split" systems, like the preposition a+ in Spanish (which is generally restricted to animate nominals), "mark" only the syntactic role, or do they also "mark" animacy?

– Do plural markers that occur only when the nominal is definite or animate only mark "plural", or do they also "mark" definiteness or animacy? (This often happens in creole languages, see https://apics-online.info/parameters/22.chapter.html)

Linguists often say that these markers have one "function", and the other factor that plays a role in their occurrence is a "condition", but I often find these difficult to distinguish. Couldn't one say (conversely) that the Jaminjung nominal focus marker is restricted in its distribution in that it only occurs when the nominal is a (transitive) agent?

(In other words, couldn't one say that in cases of this sort, the marker has two functions simultaneously? – Sorry, this is leading away from Fritz Newmeyer's original post.)


On 02.08.19 22:10, Eva Schultze-Berndt wrote:

Quite apart from the problems of defining focus (on which I'm less sceptical than the sources Eitan cites), in some of the categories that have been cited the literature as focus markers the question arises whether they really *mark* focus, or are rather (i) attracted to a focused constituent, or (ii) focus plays a role in their distribution.

Regarding (i), I'm not a Quechuanist, but have had discussions with colleagues who are, and it is by no means clear that everyone considers evidentials in these languages as also marking focus, rather than as attaching to the focused constituent.

Regarding (ii), I have worked on "optional" ergativity, and would not consider ergative marking associated with focus as "marking" focus. In any of the types of "classical" split ergative system, with a split, say, between humans and non-humans, or non-past and past, we would not consider the ergative case as a marker of the categories of "non-human" or "past" – either because there is a clear segmental marking already (past), or because there is no marking of the category at all outside agents (non-human). So if ergative case only occurs on focused agents (at least probabilistically – such systems often don't seem to be entirely categorical), recognisable as focused through prosody and context, why would we consider the ergative as a focus marker?


Eva Schultze-Berndt
Professor of Linguistics
Linguistics and English Language
School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
The University of Manchester
Oxford Road
M13 9PL
Manchester, UK
E-mail: eva.schultze-berndt at manchester.ac.uk<mailto:eva.schultze-berndt at manchester.ac.uk>

Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at shh.mpg.de<mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>)
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10
D-07745 Jena
Leipzig University
Institut fuer Anglistik
IPF 141199
D-04081 Leipzig

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